Wagner (Der) Ring des Nibelungen
As perspectives on the Solti/Culshaw enterprise lengthen, and critical reactions are kept alert by the regular appearance of new, or newly issued, and very different recordings, it may seem increasingly ironic that of all conductors the ultra-theatrical Solti should have been denied a live performance. There are indeed episodes in this recording that convey more of the mechanics of the studio than of the electricity of the opera house – the opening of Die Walküre, Act 2, and the closing scenes of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, for example. Yet, in general, dramatic impetus and atmosphere are strongly established and well sustained, sometimes more powerfully than is usually managed in the theatre. As just one example one would instance the superb control with which the intensity of Donner’s summoning up of the thunder in Das Rheingold is maintained across Froh’s greeting to the rainbow bridge into Wotan’s own great salutation. At the majestic climax of this scene the power of feeling conveyed by George London’s fine performance counts for more than any ‘artificiality’ in the way the voice is balanced against the orchestra. Equally memorable in a totally different context is Solti’s management of the long transition in Götterdämmerung between Hagen’s Watch and the appearance of Waltraute. Nothing could be less mannered or unnatural than Solti’s grasp of perspective and feeling for the life of each phrase in this music. On CD the clarity of instrumental detail is consistently remarkable, and while not all the singers sound as if they’re constantly in danger of being overwhelmed there are some vital episodes, especially those involving Windgassen and Nilsson. Awareness of what these artists achieved in other recordings strengthens the suspicion that they may have been giving more than we actually get here. Windgassen isn’t allowed to dominate the sound picture in the way his part demands, and Nilsson can seem all-too relaxed within the comforting cocoon of the orchestral texture. Factors like these, coupled with those distinctive Soltian confrontations between the hard-driven and the hammily protracted, have prevented the cycle from decisively seeing off its rivals over the years. It’s questionable neverthe- less whether any studio recording of The Ring could reasonably be expected to be more atmospheric, exciting or better performed than this one. The VPO isn’t merely prominent, but excellent, and such interpretations as Svanholm’s Loge, Neidlinger’s Alberich and Frick’s Hagen remain very impressive. Above all, there’s Hotter, whose incomparably authoritative, unfailingly alert and responsive Wotan stands up well when compared to his earlier Bayreuth accounts. Nowhere is he more commanding than in Siegfried, Act 1, where one even welcomes Stolze’s mannerisms as Mime for the sparks they strike off the great bass-baritone. Earlier in this act the interplay of equally balanced instruments and voices in relatively intimate conversational phrases displays the Culshaw concept at its most convincing. He would have been astonished to hear what his successors have achieved in renewing his production through digital remastering. One now realises how much of the original sound was lost on the old pressings. In comparison with the 1980 Janowski/RCA version, the approaches are so different they almost seem like different experiences. Culshaw was intent on creating a theatre on record with all the well-known stage effects; the rival version eschews all such manifestations. In general, Janowski presents a much more intimate view of the work than Solti’s. However many other Rings you may have, though, you’ll need this one.